LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- As a Latina and a first-generation college student who grew up in a predominantly Black and brown neighborhood in Pasadena, Emily Bonilla said having professors who look like her make her feel "valued" and "seen."
"I feel like with other professors, I just don't have that relationship or that closeness or that trust," she said, adding that she feels more comfortable going to professors of color to ask them to review her work.
"Because I know they'll understand where I'm coming from," she said.
Bonilla is majoring in journalism at the University of Southern California and is an editor for the school's Latinx-focused media outlet, Dímelo.
One of her professors and mentors is Amara Aguilar, a professor of journalism and public relations at USC.
"I have had so many students come up to me and tell me, you know, this is the first time they had a Latina professor in their college education. And it's definitely an honor, but at the same time, I wish there were more," Aguilar said.
"There needs to be more representation, especially with the Latino community, especially in a place like as diverse as Los Angeles," she continued.
The 'pipeline just gets thinner'
In colleges and universities across Los Angeles County, almost half of students are Hispanic or Latino, compared to just 11% of faculty, according to an ABC7 analysis of numbers from the National Center for Educations Statistics' 2019 Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System.
There are similar trends across Southern California counties, and our analysis found that the gap between the Latino student population and the instructional faculty population is the largest gap across race and ethnicities.
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There are "still some sizable gaps," said Tyrone Howard, a professor of education and the associate dean for equity and diversity at UCLA's Graduate School of Education & Information Services.
"So, what that means, if you have fewer numbers of Latinx students who are going to college, that means that fewer numbers are going to graduate from college. Subsequently, fewer go on to postgraduate degree programs, fewer graduate from those degrees. So it's like this pipeline just gets thinner and thinner and thinner and thinner the farther up the ladder that you go," Howard said.
Research also shows Latino students in California are the most likely to be first-generation.
"In 2021, to have so many students, thousands of students, who are going to college for the first time, you can begin to see why we haven't had larger numbers of faculty of color," Howard said.
He continued, saying the biggest gap is within the Hispanic and Latino community because of how large the population is in Southern California.
Amara Aguilar, from USC, said while she had many "amazing" mentors throughout her college education in Southern California, she didn't have many mentors of color.
"And so that's one of the reasons why it's so important, you know, for me to provide that role to my students now," Aguilar said.
Building relationships and sharing culture
Emily Bonilla said Aguilar helped her transition to USC.
"It's definitely made the process smoother, especially just building a relationship with her, building trust with her, knowing that she understands me," Bonilla said, recalling a simple Instagram story project she was working on, where she went back and forth in "Spanglish," explaining the significance of Dia De Los Muertos.
"And the support that I got from my mentors, such as Amara, was immense. Because I know that if I would have gone with anybody else, whatever I would have published, they wouldn't have even understood it," Bonilla said.
Aguilar said she developed a class at USC called Social Media Storytelling for Latinx Audiences because she found students felt their stories weren't being represented.
"And they wanted to have a place to share those stories, and to really tell the stories of their community and amplify those voices," she said.
Tyrone Howard from UCLA said having a diverse faculty is important because it means those faculty members can relate to experiences of students, creating a "level of comfort and familiarity."
For Aguilar, shared experiences of culture are important.
"It's important to see people you can relate to. And a lot of times, I find, you know, being a Latina professor, that my students open up to me a lot more, they will ask me questions, they might not ask other professors," she said.
The 'diversity tax'
The extra work put in by faculty of color when students of color come to them for mentorship isn't always acknowledged when it comes to promotions or tenure considerations, experts said.
Howard calls it "the diversity tax."
"Students of color oftentimes come to us for more support, for greater mentorship, they need more time, they require certain kinds of support, but those are things that oftentimes you can't quantify and you can't put in your record. And many of our white colleagues don't have to do those things," he said.
Aguilar said she spends a lot of time mentoring all kinds of students, but especially students of color. She said it's rewarding to see her students succeed, but it comes with extra time and extra resources.
"I definitely think that college systems and educational systems can do more to recognize that extra work that does fall on many faculty of color, especially women," she said.
Retention, rewards, recruitment
Aguilar recently received an award from the Society of Professional Journalists for Distinguished Teaching.
"I really appreciate that professional organizations are recognizing the work being done to help students of color because much of my work has been done, surrounding that area," she said.
Aguilar said recognition for extra work put in by faculty of color can help retain those professors.
"And not just with awards or word of mouth, but I think putting resources, specifically monetary resources, paying people more for doing this type of work, and not just expecting faculty of color to carry extra loads. Because many times we do, and many times, it's not recognized," Aguilar said.
Aguilar created Dímelo, USC's Latinx-focused media outlet, and created curriculum around serving and reporting on Latinx communities. USC recognized her with an undergraduate mentoring award as well.
"Those things actually do help with promotion and retention. But I still think we need to do more with incentives, because not all institutions offer those things. And there's only so many awards to give out when there are many more people doing this important work," she said.
In a statement from the USC Office of the Provost, the university said it is "committed to increasing diversity in all our faculty ranks and understand that our excellence depends on expanding our diversity."
The statement said USC has pipeline programs and diversity initiatives.
"This situation is an issue at universities across the country. As part of our commitment to diversity, we are focused on increasing the hiring of faculty in underrepresented groups," the statement continued.
Speaking generally, Tyrone Howard from UCLA said university leaders need to look at every department and provide recruitment support for those that have been unable to actively recruit underrepresented populations.
"What is the mechanism that we can use at the higher education level to start either rewarding those departments that do hire more diverse faculty, or even engaging in some public shaming of those don't," Howard said.
And the argument that university departments can't find qualified people of color? Howard said he doesn't believe that, especially when universities can find plenty of students of color to play on athletic teams.
"We go to all parts of the earth to find folks who will come participate in our athletic programs, why can't we do the same thing in terms of going to all parts of the earth to find those same kinds of folks to come teach in our chemistry department? To teach in our biology department? To teach in our mathematics department? So, we have the formula we just don't apply in the academic realm like we do in the athletic realm," Howard said.
UCLA said in a statement that, "developing and maintaining a diverse and inclusive community is essential to the success of any university and to the mission of higher education. Our diverse and talented faculty are central to UCLA's success."
The school also said last summer it launched the Rising to the Challenge Initiative and is intending to become federally designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution by 2025.
"This recognition would qualify UCLA for a range of federal grants that would bolster our educational programs and benefit Latinx communities," the statement said.
The university said, "more work remains" in order to achieve diversity goals, but they are "committed to recruiting talented and diverse faculty candidates who will transform UCLA's present and future."
Howard said UCLA has made it mandatory for anyone who sits on a search committee to go through implicit bias training, because many tend to want to hire people who are most like them and who may do similar research.
"So you've got to go through some training to kind of recognize those biases. You have to make sure that when you have a pool of finalists, if you've got five finalists and they're all five white men, we gotta say, 'timeout, let's go back and look at this process again,'" he said.
Howard said it's important to remember that increasing diversity doesn't mean hiring faculty based solely on the color of their skin.
"Let's be clear, these are individuals who are highly qualified and more than capable, and this idea that diversity causes us to compromise quality is to me just, it's just faulty...I've oftentimes said that, to me, you don't have excellence without diversity," he said.
But recruitment is also a pipeline issue, said Howard. To turn more students of color into professors of color, universities need to recognize the cost factor.
"If I'm already in debt for my undergraduate degree and now you're talking about four or five more years of additional debt, that's just not going to be really inviting for me to pursue this pathway. But, if you told me I had a five-year fellowship and I don't have to pay for a graduate degree, that might increase the likelihood that I would consider pursuing that degree," he said.
And the better schools recruit, the better retention becomes. Howard said research has shown schools retain more faculty of color when they hire more than one person of color.
"Because now they've got a built-in support group. The labor that comes with being a diverse member is not falling on one individual," he said.
Aguilar said it can be lonely at times being one of the few Latina professors in her department.
"Some are all by themselves," she said. "So, we need more of us, so that we can share those experiences and bring, you know, bring our culture and those diverse experiences into our schools and bring them to our students."
As for Emily Bonilla, one of Aguilar's students at USC, she said she knows universities are working on diversity and inclusion. But, she said she "won't believe that diversity and inclusion efforts are really happening until I see it."
In the meantime, "I'm hoping that me, myself, as a first-generation student, I can at least form a legacy of my own," she said.